Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed
C. Brian Williams: Stepping is a percussive, highly energetic, polyrhythmic artform created by African American fraternities and sororities. In stepping, we use the body as an instrument, using our hands, our feet, and our voices to make music together.
Jo Reed: That is 2022 NEA National Heritage Fellow C. Brian Williams. Brian is a step artist, producer, and founder and executive director of Step Afrika! You also heard the dynamic sound of dancers from Step Afrika! performing. Brian has been involved with stepping for over thirty years-- discovering it on a college campus and bringing it from the confines of the university to stages, classrooms, and community centers throughout the country and around the world. Brian sees stepping as an artform that is steeped in African-American history and as such—a great vehicle for cross cultural exchange and education. Since founding Step Afrika! in 1994, C. Brian Williams has brought stepping to audiences in more than 60 countries and 49 states. Now one of the top 10 U.S. Black dance companies, Step Afrika! is primarily credited with introducing the art of stepping to the American theater. Under Brian’s leadership, Step Afrika! has expanded the scope and style of stepping by fusing it with jazz, Black spirituals, hip-hop, and classical music. Education is as important as performance to Brian and he use stepping as an educational and motivational tool for young people--designing an innovative stepping curriculum. I spoke with C Brian Williams last month about the exhilarating art of stepping. After thirty plus years of being intimately involved with stepping, C Brian Williams distinctly remembers the first time he saw it.
C. Brian Williams: So I’m actually born and raised in Houston, Texas, and came to Washington D.C. in 1986 to attend Howard University. It was on the campus of Howard University where I was first introduced to the tradition of stepping. I’ll never forget it. It was twelve o’clock on a Friday, I believe, and all the fraternities and sororities were gathered in circles all across the yard, the main area of the campus where students would hang out, and they were performing these really interesting movements and songs, and chants sometimes, in a circle, sometimes in a line, and lots of community was gathered around them. So that was my introduction to the artform of stepping, as a ritual, as a folkloric tradition of these fraternity and sororities, and a way that they would express love and pride of their organization to a broader community. So I was immediately fascinated by the form and couldn’t wait to actually access it myself.
Jo Reed: Do you remember your first time actually stepping?
C. Brian Williams: Oh yeah, of course.
Jo Reed: Okay, tell me about that, what did that feel like?
C. Brian Williams: Well, what’s so interesting about the form of stepping, this is in, again, 1986, 1987, where I first see the form, and if you weren’t on a college campus and if you didn’t have close proximity to African American fraternities and sororities, you may not know the form, regardless of your color or whatever. It was a very protected tradition within the fraternity and sorority system. I joined the fraternity, I pledge my fraternity, which is Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, in 1989, and it is not until I actually start the pledge process am I able to begin to learn the artform. Because at that time, stepping was a part of the pledge process, it was the only way to learn how to step was if you decided or were selected to pledge an African American fraternity or sorority. So it was really interesting, the way to access the form was quite restricted, I mean, to say the least. So that was my introduction to the form as a part of my pledge process on campus at Howard University. I'll be pledging and learning the history, and the rules and processes of my fraternity, and then as a part of that, we would learn how to step. So I would learn how to step with my fellow pledgees, I now call them my sans. We would learn how to step together, and it was really a bond building activity where we get a chance-- and we couldn’t wait for the chance to share our steps with the broader community. So we actually learned how to step in secret, no one could see us practicing the tradition, or maybe you might luck up upon us and see us somewhere practicing. But it was very much a private tradition that we held very closely, and I love that the fraternities and sororities still do protect this unique artform even to this day.
Jo Reed: Do different fraternities and sororities, like did Alpha Phi Alpha have particular steps that you would do?
C. Brian Williams: Yes, so each fraternity and sorority-- and they’re collectively called the Divine Nine, right? Five fraternities, four sororities, and each of these groups has their own distinct songs that they will sing, colors that they will wear, calls that they will make, and steps that they will share. So it really is a fascinating culture, so my fraternity has a very specific style of stepping, and very specific songs that we sing that are unique to our group, and it’s a wonderful thing to see. The classic area where you can see stepping practice is the step show, and that is where the fraternities and sororities come together to actually compete and demonstrate their own individualized approach to the artform. But I'll never forget, stepping didn’t start to be shared with the broader community until Spike Lee’s movie was a very pivotal moment in--
Jo Reed: “School Daze”?
C. Brian Williams: Yes, exactly, in sharing stepping with a much broader community, well beyond those who are on a college campus. I think that is one of the watershed moments for the artform in terms of it becoming more recognized as a uniquely American dance tradition and form.
Jo Reed: That was certainly the first time I saw it. I remember my <laughs> jaw was on the movie theater floor.
.C. Brian Williams: That’s great. <laughter>
Jo Reed: Do you know how stepping was created? Or just a sense of where it came from?
C. Brian Williams: Well, this is a question that has perplexed or really motivated Step Afrika! for twenty-nine years, for my entire career. Because I will tell you, when I joined the fraternity and we would try to ask the same question, “Well, where does stepping come from? When was it first developed?” It was very vague, very general responses as to “Well, stepping may come from Africa,” but they didn’t speak about which part of the continent of Africa, or which tradition, which culture it was tied to. It wasn’t very clear when African Americans, fraternity and the sorority members, first started to really develop the form. So this is really a living history that, I think, needs further investigation. However, what we did find out, and this is a result of Step Afrika’s! I call it twenty-nine years of percussive research and investigation, and my own personal research into the form, we did come to some pivotal moments in American history that do speak to why African Americans do use the body as a drum, and that was quite telling to us.
Jo Reed: Well, share that….
C. Brian Williams: So, we worked with this amazing scholar, Dr. David Pleasant, who actually introduced these concepts to us. He introduced us to the Stono Rebellion of 1739, a fascinating movement by Africans in colonial America fighting against the injustices of slavery. It is said that they used their drums as a means to call the community to action, to protest and fight. The rebellion was eventually stopped, it didn’t last that long, but it sparked the Negro Act of 1740, and in this act, Africans lost the right to read, to gather in groups above seven, to travel, to write, and for us in Step Afrika! in particular, this is so important, to use their drums. We believe that when Africans lose a right to use their drum, when the drum is made an illegal weapon on the American plantation, that Africans begin to reinterpret those rhythms into the body, and those bodies begin to in-- those rhythms begin to enter the body and play themselves out into the many artforms that we know and love today. So the ring shout, which is one of those first traditions that’s developed post, we say, the loss of the drum. Pattin’ Juba hambone, that uniquely African American tradition. Tapping, which, of course, has ties to Irish step dancing and Appalachian clogging. African American tap, and then, stepping, which we consider to be the latest in a line of body percussive dance forms in African American communities. So this research really ties us to some fascinating moments in American history, and in our new work that we’re actually touring the country with right now, “Drumfolk” is actually based on those two historical events, the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and the Negro Act of 1740. So we’re really excited to share this history. But I will say there’s so much more work to be done in this area.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I would agree, and I saw “Drumfolk” and it was an extraordinary evening of theater, so thank you for that.
C. Brian Williams: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Stepping is a rather new artform, still evolving, very much tied to African American fraternities and sororities. What are your thoughts about why it began?
C. Brian Williams: Think about African Americans in the early 1900s, very different time in American history. About 30 to 40 years after the end of slavery in the country, they're starting to enter American life, but they’re clearly not welcome fully, right? They’re allowed to go to school, but they’re not allowed to fully participate in student life. So I can imagine they see these white students in fraternities and sororities, and they decide to-- “Since we aren’t welcome fully into those spaces, we must create our own.” So we create our own safe space, these fraternities and sororities, on campuses. I will say that they were started, my fraternity, Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, was started at Cornell University in 1906, right? So it’s African Americans on largely white spaces, trying to create some safe space for themselves. So the fraternity becomes that and then the movement spreads amongst the community to-- other college students begin to start their own. So it’s really interesting studying the development of black fraternalism. So they create these safe spaces to support the students academically, socially, and they built these groups to serve the community outside of themselves. So community service is very much tied to African American fraternalism, and then stepping becomes this artistic byproduct of this movement, right? It’s not the reason that they joined, the reason they joined is for academic support, moral support, etc. But then stepping becomes a way that they express this collective bond that they have now created for themselves with the broader community. So it really is a wonderful story in terms of African Americans coming together for a larger purpose, in a challenging, somewhat hostile environment, and then creating unique ways to share that love with a larger community. So, I mean, I really love this form. It deserves so much more research and study in terms of the development of it. So it’s just a lot <laughs> to consider.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it is a lot. It also strikes me as intrinsically celebratory and a way of asserting this is who we are.
C. Brian Williams: Oh yeah, without question. Stepping is a very aggressive form, I like to say, and assertive is another good word for that, clearly, very powerful, very proud. I mean, and what I also love about it is-- intrinsically, African Americans were basically working to reclaim the drum, and I wonder if we were aware of that in developing these body percussive traditions. So for me, it talks a lot about the development of African American culture in general, the transformation of language, and who Africans were before they even arrived on these shores, and then what they became through their experience here over the course of 200, 300 years, and what we see and witness today, you know?
Jo Reed: What always strikes me with traditional art most particularly is the history it contains if you can look deep enough and long enough.
C. Brian Williams: Exactly, and that’s why I'm such a huge fan of the traditional arts and folkloric arts. This honor means a lot to me, the National Heritage Fellow, because this is a part of our country’s heritage and when you study the tradition of stepping, which leads to the tradition of fraternities and sororities and the development of these organizations, and what they have done in terms of serve as a space for the development of African American leadership, you can learn so much more just by accessing the artform of stepping. So the form introduces you to the development of a culture, of a subset of a culture, as well. That’s for all the fellows and the forms they represent, they tell us so much about the American story, and all its many, many faces.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I completely agree. So, you’re at Howard and you’re stepping while you’re there, obviously, as part of a larger community, and you graduate, what do you do? Because stepping really is just taking place on college campuses now….
C. Brian Williams: That was the “Aha!” moment. I fell in love with the form, and performing the step shows, and I love the spirit of it. But I was also in love with the continent of Africa at the time, and I really wanted to travel and connect more with African culture and traditions. So when I graduate from Howard University, I immediately take a fellowship to live and work in Southern Africa, in 1991. So this is my first job after college, and that’s where the real “Aha!” moment came, when living and working in Lesotho in 1991, seeing different traditional dances and cultures every day. That sparked me to create Step Afrika!
Jo Reed: Well, you saw a dance, called the gumboot dance, and you really saw a similarity. What was the gumboot dance?
C. Brian Williams: Yeah, I mean, it’s a story I've told many times in talking about the lightbulb for me that led to the work that I would do for most of my life. It was a young boy on the side of the road, I was driving to work or something, and I saw this little boy with some-- he couldn’t be more than, I don’t know, five feet tall, maybe four-foot-five, something like that. I remember the boots that he was wearing, these wellington-- the wellies, that they call them, gumboots, these rubber boots that construction workers would wear. He was making all these crazy rhythms. I just saw him slapping the boots trying to make sound. So I saw the dancing, I immediately went to my students, and I tried to replicate it, or whatnot, and they said “Oh, that’s a South African gumboot dance.” I said “Well, look, I have a form, an artform to share with you,” and I actually showed them a step. <laughs> I’ll never forget, there was so much energy in the room when I shared that step because it reminded them so much of South African gumboot dancing, and, of course, I had the same reaction to their form. So I was really sparked by the energy that was created from us sharing our artforms together, me stepping, and them the South African gumboot dance, that I said “I kind of want to do this more, and I want to bring these two forms together just to see what would happen.” More importantly, what would happen to the people as a result of sharing each other’s art forms. So Step Afrika!, I would start three years later in 1994 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the historic township of Soweto, really working to bring stepping together with the South African gumboot dance, and as a result, South African artforms and people. But since then, we really have used the artform to share and connect with cultures in over 60 countries across the world, from Europe, to Central and South America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to really everywhere, and to other parts on the continent of Africa.
Jo Reed: Step Afrika! began as a festival in Johannesburg, and you partnered with the Soweto Dance Theater. So did you think the festival was one-and-done, or did you know that you were going to continue? What were your thoughts?
C. Brian Williams: Oh yeah, I mean, I had no long-term plans for Step Afrika!, I thought it was going to be a one-and-done, as you say. I was just so happy to make it happen. This was like artistic class practice with bootstraps, making it happen, no funding, no sense of <laughs> stability, just robbing Peter to pay Paul. Just trying to make it happen by any means possible. I'm so glad that we did, and just breathe a sigh of relief after it was over. But what happened, I'll never forget, is that almost immediately towards the end of the festival, those two weeks in December 1994, others started talking about next year, or “What are we going to do next year?” That for me was a huge moment because the idea that I had, Step Afrika! had infected, if you will, others. Others were just excited about the possibility of this form, and that’s when it went from being just this idea and this one-off, to more of an organization.
Jo Reed: What I found so interesting, Brian, is that even before you began a performing company, you began by teaching. You had the festival and then teaching was the next thing you did, having workshops and teaching students.
C. Brian Williams: Oh yeah, and that’s why it remains foundational to Step Afrika’s! work to this day. I mean, we love performing and we love the theater and bringing stepping to stages around the world, but at our root, it is artistic and cultural exchange. So teaching children and performing for children is just a huge part of our work, and for me it’s just as important as massive performances all across the country. I love performing in these big, beautiful theaters as much as I love-- I equally love performing in rural community centers, or multi-purpose rooms, and elementary school just as much. I love them just as much.
Jo Reed: So let’s talk about the beginning of the performing company. When did you start it? I have to assume the dancers came from fraternities and sororities at first?
C. Brian Williams: Oh yeah, without question. The Step Afrika! International Cultural Festival starts in 1994 and for the first two years all of our efforts are focused on basically making this festival happen in Johannesburg. But after two years, around 1996, we start to bring the benefits of the festival to American shores. We start to do workshops with children, centered around the tradition of stepping in the US, and D.C., in my hometown of DC now, and other places in the States. And we start to play with the idea of developing a company, a dance company, that would be like the first professional company centered around the art form of stepping. And then we also start playing with the idea of merging the fraternity and sorority traditions into one performance before then, you know, you would never step-- I would never step with the sorority. You know? I would never said with a different fraternity. I will only step with my fraternity brothers. So we started toying with the idea like in 1996 about okay, let's start expanding what it means to step in general, and then start sharing this form with others.
Jo Reed: What were some of the big challenges you faced when you began Step Afrika?
C. Brian Williams: Well, I think it was just how to do it. I merely chose to create a nonprofit organization, not really understanding what that meant. I had no idea what it meant to fundraise or write grants and whatnot. But I did feel that the work was mission-based. This was not a profit-making enterprise. It was a service. So I think that was a very clear distinction I made early on that this was work to be done for the greater good, not, you know, for profit. So I think that has been really important. So it was a challenge on how to actually structure an idea. You know, it’s one thing that's to make it happen. It’s another thing to turn it into a functioning institution that can support and work. And I think one of the most pivotal moments for me in the development of Step Afrika as a professional organization, was shifting from a part-time project to project model, to providing full time work and employment to artists who practice and celebrated the art form of stepping. And I think that was a huge transition. You know, a lot of folkloric artists and traditional artists sometimes don’t make it to that point. You know?
Jo Reed: It’s what you do after your daytime, after your day job. Yeah.
C. Brian Williams: And I wanted to end that. That was really a goal. I wanted to make it something that you could do your traditional art form and it could be your main form of income. It could be your day job. That was a huge transition in terms of honoring and pushing the form forward is by making this aggressive in the people who practice the form. So that's why when I travel around the country and the globe, I really love to speak with traditional artists because I know what they're going through. You know? They're rehearsing after work. And they’re trying to try pull together people after work and on weekends. And, you know, struggling sometimes to sustained and preserve this form. And I've worked very hard to create a mechanism by which we could invest in it aggressively and really push the form forward. So that was a huge innovation for us.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about choreography for a moment because you would have had to create your own steps, your own choreography and I wonder what the process is for that.
C. Brian Williams: Yeah. That is what's so fascinating about Step Afrika!, as one of the largest African-American dance companies in the world today, and one of the largest just modern contemporary dance companies of any stripe, you know, regardless of color and ethnicity. Step Afrika! relies upon its artists to not only perform, but to also create the works that we bring to audiences across the world around the world. So sometimes we have choreographers that have been nurtured and developed within the company that begin to create works. But you're right, we have to create our work ourselves. Right? Because we are the best in the world at it. And we're the ones who practice it more than anyone else in the world. And that's been very humbling for me that this is uniquely African-American. There is no other place in the world where I can find this particular tradition. It is so American and so I must look within the continental United States to find people who practice and love this tradition and then who want to take it to new areas. And so I've been very excited to see how we have helped to transform this tradition-- you know, when I first learned to step, I would do a 10-minute show and I would work months to create a 10-minute show. Now, one work can be 15-20 minutes. So we really, at Step Afrika!, what we don't get credit for is that we really have pushed the limits of what stepping can be and how its shared and presented around the world. And, you know, our work, our daily work, you know, shows that.
Jo Reed: And I think it's important to say that you involve the audience. The audience isn't just a passive recipient of this.
C. Brian Williams: No. You know, what I've always said is we try to bring the energy of the step show to the theater. Right? And with that there is no fourth wall. There is no us and audience. It’s just we're gathered together in a space. That's why I love the theater as well. I believe the theater is tremendous classroom, as a gathering place for people to come and learn and share. So every time Step Afrika! enters a stage, we immediately want to create a community with the audience that's come to be with us. And that's why I love seeing the company perform so much because I don't care where we are in rural Maine, in Tennessee, in Washington wherever we are on the United States, you know, when we went to the theater we try to create a community together.
Jo Reed: As we mentioned, education, community is really at the foundation of Step Afrika, and you expect the dancers to be teaching artists, as well. That's sort of baked in, you know, as at home in a classroom, as on a stage.
C. Brian Williams: Yes.
Jo Reed: Can you talk and share a little bit about the extraordinary educational programs you have?
C. Brian Williams: Like I said, we started developing the educational programs from Jump quite honestly. And arts education and working with students is just super important to Step Afrika. It always has been. It always will be. When we recruit artists, we're not just recruiting the amazing performers. We want them to be dedicated teaching artists as well. So that's very, very important to us. And as a result, we've developed an array of programs that we use to serve children. One of my favorites is Stepping with Step Afrika. It's our 45-to-50 minute assembly that we bring to, you know, students K through 12, where we actually introduce the art form of stepping. You know? And it's connections to South African-style and other forms as well. It's a show that we've been doing for quite some time. I don't know how many maybe hundreds and hundreds of thousands of students have seen that performance. And every time, I'm excited to see students yelling and cheering along with Step Afrika and being introduced to these artists and the culture behind. You know?
Jo Reed: And how many students do you think you reach a year?
C. Brian Williams: I think we reach in the United States alone we'd have to reach 50,000 students at a minimum, if not more. We spend a lot of time on stages across the country and in classrooms performing. We spend more time on stage than we do in rehearsal to be honest. So that allows us to reach a lot of kids, you know, a lot of people with our performance.
Jo Reed: Well, as you've said, you've taken Step Afrika! around the country and around the world. You're on the road a lot. This is-- the amount of energy the dancers expend on that stage is impossible for me to describe. Is that hard on you and the dancers to be traveling so much?
C. Brian Williams: You know, I would say it’s not hard on you when you love the work. Right? I really build Step Afrika! because I thought I wanted to be incredibly flexible and adaptable and able to tour anywhere. I don't want to be restricted by staging limitations or economic constraints. I wanted it to be affordable and accessible because I wanted to reach as many people as possible and that really has carried through in the work. You know? I mean we don't just play big cities. We play small towns. You know? You don't have to have a Broadway type stage to bring Step Afrika!. We can do a wonderful show in a small community venue with or without when, you know, it’s extensive lighting, technically sound theater, or whatnot. So that's important to our work. You know, I want us to be able to carry our work into any space without too many limitations. So when you love the work, the touring is more energizing than it is exhausting. You know? Because it's like you to meet and connect and then inspire so many people. And you never know whose life is being touched in the audience, who's being introduced for the first time to this history, to this culture. So I always tell the artist at the end of the day they are dancers and artists, yes, but they're also ambassadors, not only for African-American culture, for the tradition of stepping, but when we travel overseas for American culture in general. So I take that part of our work, very, very seriously to constantly represent the culture and traditions as strongly as possible.
Jo Reed: Well, that leads to my next question because you've done a lot of State Department tours, cultural exchanges. And I was going to ask you what makes these trips particularly special.
C. Brian Williams: I mean, working with the State Department just has been really a dream come true for me and it's work that I really, really value because at the root of Step Afrika! I love bringing cultures and communities together, and I love artistic exchange. So there's nothing makes me more excited than to see, to share the food, the culture, the language, the dance of another culture. So like I said, we've been all over the world and, you know, governments aren't always the people. Right? But that's so interesting to me when I go to a country that has maybe challenging policies with the United States of America, yet on the ground the people are so similar and just looking to exchange and connect and create together. And we've done that, you know, we’ve been able to tour to South Eastern Europe. One of my favorite countries in the world Croatia. We've been there, eight or nine times connecting with, you know, the people of Croatia, the young people of Croatia performing and teaching. We did a tour of Haiti that was just, you know, unforgettable. So it's just, you know, wherever we are in the world it’s just an opportunity to connect and create relationships that didn't exist. What I'm curious about in the future is how we can build even more so upon these one-time visits and create long lasting connections. I haven't figured that out yet because we're always so busy.
Jo Reed: You have been given more awards than I have time to name for innovation in the arts, contributions to the arts, excellence in the arts. People can get the picture. But now you’re named 2022 NEA National Heritage Fellow. And I have to ask what this particular award means for you?
C. Brian Williams: I mean that means a lot. I mean, every award that I have received means a lot to me. A lot of those rewards you mentioned, were giving to me in my hometown of Washington, DC by the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, which has been with me, supporting me as an individual artist, and even helped my learning how to lead a company like Step Afrika. I learned a lot through the programs that the DC Commission of Arts and Humanities created. You know? So I really want to give a special shout-out to that institution, you know, to all state arts agencies across the country. You know, the work that they do to support artists in their communities is so important. And that, of course, is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. So it all comes back to the NEA doesn’t it? So I guess the NEA has been supporting my work since I started-- since I got my first grant, since I learned how to even write my first grant. The NEA has been critical to my development as an artist, to the development of Step Afrika as an institution. Those funds, those initial grants, no matter the size, you know, helped-- supported the company, motivated, you know, me and the company to do this work. So to now be awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts with this fellow recognizing stepping as a unique part of America's cultural heritage is exciting. So I really want to get the word out as much as possible about this and share it with as many people as I can because I am very honored. And just excited not so much for myself, but for the art form of stepping and what it means for that tradition.
And there's so much richness in the body of the American people. There's so many stories, so much culture. I mean, it's just-- it's just wild. And I appreciate-- I love that this fellowship gives a platform to many of those people working in the traditional folkloric arts all across the country, creating beauty in so many different spaces. You know? Just not enough time to celebrate them all, or to witness and see them all. So this award gives us some chance to put a little light on those doing the work.
Jo Reed: And I think that's a good place to leave it. Brian, first of all, congratulations again. And then, thank you. Thank you for all the work you've done. Thank you for Step Afrika! . Thanks Step Afrika!. The cultural contributions are just amazing, and I really appreciate it.
C. Brian Williams: Well, thank you. And thanks for taking time for the interview. And I can't wait to see the film and, and celebrate this for the whole year.
Jo Reed: That is 2022 NEA National Heritage Fellow C. Brian Williams. Brian is a step artist, producer, and founder and executive director of Step Afrika! You can find out more about Step Afrika! and stepping at Step Africa.org. The film Brian referred to is called “Roots of American Culture” and it celebrates and documents the artistry of all the 2022 National Heritage Fellows. And you can stream the documentary on November 17. Check out our website arts.gov for more details. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. Let us know what you think about the Art Works podcast and suggest someone we should speak to by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, Thanks for listening.